In my previous article, I introduced what could be considered the first era of skepticism, from the founding of the Association against Quackery (Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij – VtdK) in the Netherlands through to the work and death of arguably the first skeptical celebrity, Harry Houdini.
By the time of Houdini’s passing in 1926, the skeptical movement had coalesced around two key aims: fighting quackery, and testing claims of the paranormal. As the 20th Century entered its new decade, skepticism would develop a more structured scientific approach.
The Second Era
Principles of Falsifiability
Karl Popper’s 1934 book The Logic of Scientific Discovery was a milestone in both the world of science and consequently in the world of the skeptical movement. It was the last step in the preceding path of thought regarding a new approach to scientific thinking and testing. Popper’s ideas of critical rationalism, finding the balance between opinion pluralism and relativism, is a cornerstone of skeptical thinking. As were, of course, his two key principles of falsifiability:
- Claims must be formulated in a way that can be tested
- A theory confirmed by experiments is only valid as long as it is not disproven
The first modern skeptics’ group
Originally, the Belgian Committee for Scientific Investigation of Purported Paranormal Phenomena (Comité Belge pour l’Investigation Scientifique des Phénomènes Réputés Paranormaux), today The Belgian Committee for the Critical Analysis of Pseudosciences (Comité belge pour l’analyse critique des parasciences), Comité Para for short, is the first skeptical organization to apply skeptical thinking to a variety of fields and disciplines. It was founded in 1949 in reaction to the hyena-like behavior of post-war psychics, and a result of seventeen academics banding together to examine the validity of radiesthesia.
Comité Para is still a very active group and it’s the motto “Do not deny anything a priori, do not assert anything without evidence” is universal to the skeptic movement.
The Decalogue of Bertrand Russell
The next milestone is the liberal decalogue of Bertrand Russell, published in the New York Times in 1951. Though it was meant as a pathway leading away from fanaticism, it encapsulates the basics of critical thinking and skeptical thought and is still shared by skeptics and atheists as a guideline. Some of his points must be presented with an explanation, however, to adjust to postmodern thinking.
At the time, we cannot exactly say that his ideas were popular among the general public, however, they did make their mark among academics, which, in the beginning, was the group from which skeptics came from.
Testing the Paranormal
The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge is legendary in the Skeptic movement. The work of James Randi truly brought the discipline of questioning and the need of verifying from the realm of academia into the consciousness of the general public.
Skepticism Anchors in the USA
In 1976 Paul Kurtz was inspired by Comité Para and co-founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) together with Randi, Isaac Asimov, B. F. Skinner, and Carl Sagan. Later renamed to the Center for Skeptical Inquiry. This, in turn, inspired the founding of many organizations worldwide. Various personalities lent their fame to this organization and to its goals, helping it to gain renown. The creation of CSICOP is the ending of the second era, in which we saw the creation of skeptics groups and more comprehensive development of skeptical thinking.
The Third Era
The airing of Sagan’s Cosmos added another component to the skeptical movement. Not only did it promote questioning, it truly started explaining the science on the basis of which we can question. Though this sounds completely logical, communicating science the way Sagan and his contemporaries worldwide started to do was something quite new and revolutionary. He also got kids excited about science and started a whole genre of science shows. Today, communicating science is as important, if not more, than questioning and debunking of claims.
Meetings, Conferences, Congresses
In the ’80s and ’90s skeptical groups started popping up left and right. Among them were my home group Sisyfos (1995), the German GWUP (1987), the Swedish VoF (1982), Italian CICAP (1989), and Spanish ARP-SAPC (1986). After the first European Skeptics Congress in 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain, skeptic groups in Europe started to communicate with each other more, creating an umbrella organization to ease the process and band together under – the European Council of Skeptical Organisations (ECSO).
Skeptics started to meet across borders, communicate, and take advantage of the development of technological means to stay in touch, share experience, and spread their work. Also, with the new influx of members, the skeptical movement stopped being the domain of simply intellectual skepticism but became the home of skeptical activism.
The Fourth Era?
Skeptical activism leads to the question of “Why do we do this?” For skeptics, it is a question of being right and providing correct information. For skeptical activists, it is a question of consumer and public protection. These ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, but an individual’s preference of one over the other does form the way of their approach to skepticism and their role in the movement.
Because of various motivations and entering points, we can see an overlap between the skeptical movement, the free-thought movement, rationalists, atheists, secularists, and humanists, including categories of humanism, such as feminism and racial equality.
Though skepticism, as a school, is about rationality and objectivity, the skeptical movement is about embracing our humanity and using the tools we have to promote science, evidence-based public policy, quality education, and debunking baseless claims and beliefs, no matter where they are promoted, or who promotes them.